I vaguely remember reading one or two of the John Carter of Mars stories (also called Barsoom) when I was in middle school. It’s been a long time, though, so I don’t recall many details; I do, however, maintain a deep respect for the franchise because of its massive impact on science fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also created Tarzan) wrote the first book 100 years ago, and its influence ranges from Conan to Star Wars to Avatar. So when seeing that somebody (Disney, to be precise) was finally tackling the task of adapting the stories to film, I was curious and wanted to see it. Enough so that I took the rare (for me) step of attending a midnight premiere, being one of the first people to see the new film. This wasn’t without some trepidation, as there are definite pitfalls to be avoided, and the preliminary marketing for John Carter has been rocky at best, starting with the name changes and continuing on with the early trailers.
I can understand not wanting to call it A Princess of Mars, as with the first Barsoom novel; hearing “princess” in connection with “Disney” gives a very specific mental image to today’s audiences, and it’s not one that would be appropriate. But I do think they took a bit of a misstep in dropping the “of Mars” from John Carter of Mars. Supposedly this change was made out of concerns that women and girls would not want to see a movie with “Mars” in the title; personally, I suspect this is underestimating females, and I think the title lacks something when it’s just the guy’s name. As influential as Edgar Rice Burrough’s work is, it’s 100 years old, and most people today haven’t read it. They don’t know who “John Carter” is. But if you call the work John Carter of Mars, they at least start to get an idea. As a fellow theatre patron and I discussed, even calling it Barsoom would at least have been more evocative of a sense of wonder, even if it’s not any clearer. It wasn’t a big deal to me as far as my anticipation of the film, but it did (and does) have me concerned about the public reception of it. The trailers, which initially looked shallow and hokey, weren’t helping.
There are a lot of possible pitfalls that could have been made with this movie. They could have updated the setting. They could have had weak dialogue, or weak performances. The four-armed Tharks could have looked out of place with conspicuous CGI, or could have moved in a way that didn’t look natural. They could have left out parts that gave the movie a bit of depth, or had an insufficient amount of action scenes. There are probably dozens of ways this movie could have gone wrong.
I am happy to report that it avoided them all.
The movie is set in the late 1800s, just as with the original novel, and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) remains a veteran of the Confederate Army from the Civil War. We’re given glimpses of his lost family life, and his current status as a loner prospector. The film even keeps the pretense of him being Edgar Rice Burroughs’s uncle (Burroughs being played here by Daryl Sabara), and the events of the film are related to Edgar through John Carter’s journal. It shows a degree of respect for the original work in that this detail, which the movie could easily have been written without, is not only preserved but important to the film.
When John Carter gets transported to Mars, he encounters, is abducted by, and adopted by, a clan of the Tharks — a green, four-armed race of Martians. He is adopted by Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), instilled with the language of Barsoom, and championed as a warrior by the chief of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, across the globe, Mars has a civil war of its own, as two great cities of the Red Martians are in conflict; the aggressive leader of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West) has demanded the hand of Helium’s princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) in marriage as a requirement for peace. Naturally, she refuses, and just as naturally, this conflict spreads to where it is witnessed by the Tharks — and most particularly John Carter.
(I’ll note, on the side, that the “Red Martians” aren’t depicted as being particularly red here; while they’re darker than John Carter, it’s not the superhuman red that pulp fiction cover artists typically depicted them as. It appears to have been managed primarily through casting decisions, and making sure that all the human-character actors got tans except for Taylor Kitsch. While having white people in “red face”, so to speak, would be offensive if they were trying to play Native Americans — or any other color of human race — here it’s just an alien race that is distinct from any Earth culture. It works reasonably well at making John Carter and the Martians look just different enough for him to stand out, while still having the Martians look human to the audience.)
The dialogue and acting come across a lot better in the movie than they did in the trailers; I’m seriously feeling like the trailers were just plain botched. There are a few awkward lines here and there, but no more than most quality action or sci-fi movies. For the most part, dialogue is natural, and the acting jobs by all the principal actors give a sense of the characters’ personalities even in simple lines. Kitsch does a good job of showing John Carter as a good man who has become tired of doing good for others, and needs to be reminded why he wants to be. And then he does a good job of being the exciting action lead, and the inspiring war hero. Lynn Collins’s portrayal of Dejah Thoris is just a bit subdued, but it works, and there’s enough chemistry between the characters to make their scenes together entertaining and believable. The romance angle is just a tad too pat, but what can you do? That’s a criticism that can be leveled at almost any sci-fi film. Dominic West makes a credible bad guy, and Mark Strong, who played a creepy evil mystic in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, does so again here and again manages to be supremely sinister. He’s on his way to getting typecast as skin-crawling bad guy, but if that’s how it works out for him, at least we’ll have some cool bad guys to watch. The Tharks, of course, are CGI rendered, but they look great, move naturally, and their faces are animated in ways that make their moods easy to read, especially with the skilled voice acting that is given to the major roles.
James Purefoy plays a small role in the film as Captain Kantos Kan, which I want to draw attention to because although it’s a very short scene, the character’s personality shines through and is very entertaining. I hope we see more of this character in future films.
The film was directed by Andrew Stanton, who previous directed some films for Pixar. It shows. The CGI looks good, and the cinematography always looks great, whether it’s a scene set on Earth or on Mars. Character designs, and particularly machine designs are wondrous, with a unique visual style. It also is a film that gets good mileage out of 3D. But the film doesn’t just look pretty, it tells a good story as well. It’s a fun action-adventure romp, but it’s not completely shallow either. There are deeper films out there, but there’s enough meat to this for it feel like a worthy entry into the field of science fiction films.
As I’ve commented in a few places, I am concerned about the possible public reception of the film. Coming out on the heels of Avatar, it would be very easy for the general public to have a knee-jerk reaction to it as being a “rip-off” of James Cameron’s film, and to reject it on that basis, or to reject it on the basis of the weak early trailers. This would be a mistake. As I noted in my review of Avatar (written, incidentally, long before I had any idea John Carter was on the horizon), Avatar borrows heavily from the original John Carter of Mars stories, as well as numerous other sources. There are, therefore, similarities, but John Carter is based on the original work, and keeps true to the original work, and so it stands as its own film, with a storyline that should not feel like a ripoff even to people who aren’t familiar with Burroughs’s stories. And it’s a good film, at that. The Barsoom novels were a major influence on modern science fiction, and have deserved a good film treatment for the 100 years of their existence. They finally have one. Now they deserve to have it be successful. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good, and the potential is there for the sequels to be excellent. But that’s not going to happen if the early tracking for this film doesn’t get turned around, which is part of why I’ve dropped my trademark snark for this review; with the bad hand this film was dealt from its mishandled marketing, I don’t want to risk contributing to its perception problems. It needs and deserves to get a lot of positive word of mouth. Hopefully it will get that… certainly the crowd of people I was watching it with all seemed to enjoy it, and after the show I overheard several conversations about how various aspects of the film would work. I normally hear that only after good science fiction, fantasy and superhero features; people don’t care to discuss the bad ones. So that, at least, is a promising sign.
If you like science fiction movies, if you like action/adventure movies, go see this film. See a great movie that’s directly based on the work that most of your favorite sci-fi films are indirectly based on. You’ll enjoy it.